Since 1991 Houghton Mifflin has been publishing the Best American Sports Writing, and Glenn Stout has been the editor of that series. Stout and ESPN Senior Writer Wright Thompson—whose work has appeared in eight editions of the book—joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Wright, your story about Urban Meyer, the head football coach at Ohio State, investigates some intriguing questions, among them: is it possible in this era to be a coach of a major football power and have a family life? What made coach Meyer determined to try to accomplish that after failing at it for several years?
WT: I think he is among the rare public figures, certainly in sports or politics, that is self-aware enough to look in the mirror and not like the person he sees. And that internal conflict, I think, pushes and pulls inside of him still.
BL: This is an on-going story, of course, and I don’t know how involved you remain with the people about whom you write, but these days how well do you think coach Meyer is doing as a father and husband as well as a football coach?
WT: It’s interesting. I normally don’t stay involved at all. I parachute in, and I run into people, but I don’t really keep in touch. I have kept in touch with Urban. I was in Columbus not that long ago doing a different story that had nothing to do with Ohio State and, you know, stopped by the office and had coffee. And I don’t know. I think for someone who really needed to teach themselves that perfection didn’t exist, you know, winning 23 straight games probably wasn’t the best thing in the world to happen.
BL: Karen Russell’s, "The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador," leads off this edition. It's a story about bullfighting. I'm not a fan of bullfighting. But when I was the guest editor of the Best American Sports Writing back in the 1998 a story about a matador led off that collection. Glenn, what's the deal with stories about bullfighting?
GS: Yeah, I don’t like bullfighting either, but I think it’s the fourth bullfighting story that’s made the book in 23 years. And I think two of them were by the same person, if I remember correctly. I think it was Tony Hendra. Two in a row. But, you know, it’s hard to turn down a story where you’ve got the horn of a bull through somebody’s eye socket. That’s drama. You want to know what happens next in that story because the guy is still alive and still fighting bulls. And she just presented it absolutely beautifully.
She elevated that story into something else so, yeah, it’s a bullfighting story, but as Rick Telander told me in a discussion we had earlier this year, none of these stories are really about sports as much as they are excuses for all of us to write about something else that really interests us and just use sports as the vehicle to get there.
WT: It’s my theory that every great profile is in some ways about the person writing it. I was drawn to Urban Meyer because in a much less public way, a much smaller way, I was sort of struggling with the balance that I think everyone struggles with. And here was a guy who was dealing with this in a very, very public way. And that made me curious. So I sort of think that Telender is exactly right. You’re looking to write about something, and he just happened to be a football coach. He could have been a CEO, he could have been a doctor, he could have been a sports writer, he could have been a radio host.
Bill's Thoughts on The Best American Sports Writing
The Best American Sports Writing 2013 has many virtues.
Like the 22 volumes that have preceded this one in the series over which the wise and determined Glenn Stout has been presiding for over two decades, this one is full of great stuff you might have missed if you aren't a regular reader of D Magazine, the Kansas City Star, or Runner's World, among others.
Unlike some of the earlier volumes, this one features a guest editor, J.R. Moehringer, who's written powerfully about all sorts of things unconnected to our games. This further insured that the writing would be paramount.
It would be disingenuous not to note that I'm partial to the 2013 book because it contains "The Gym at Third and Ross," which I wrote.
But get the book anyway. It's a grand collection of worthy writing by men and women who've brought passion and curiosity and humor to their work.
This segment aired on January 4, 2014.